Joined: 01 Dec 2005
|Posted: Mon Dec 03, 2012 1:49 pm Post subject: SuperNats 16: Diary of a budget racer: "Redemption...!!
|Ken Schilling SuperNats 16 (2012) Race Report
SuperNats diary of a budget racer: “Redemption…!!!”
Grab your favorite beverage, sit back and enjoy!!!
Hello family, friends, business associates and fellow kart racers.
Please forgive the length of this race report as I tailor it to non-karters who are unfamiliar with the sport. God has blessed me and I am incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in this fantastic sport so I want to be able to share it with those who show an interest so I include many details.
I say "Redemption" because I’ve missed making the main event on “Super Sunday” the last two years (I’ll explain more about this later).
I showed up at the SuperNats in my Honda Odyssey minivan full to the ceiling with karting “stuff” towing my teeny-tiny converted Harbor Freight trailer into the pits where there are huge tractor trailer rigs with multi-kart teams (up to about 20 karts in one tent), tuners, mechanics, driver coaches, data collection evaluators, hospitality areas with tables, food and drinks, etc... My little trailer draws a lot of attention and many questions.
My van & trailer:
Here’s one of the larger teams semi trailer and tent.
One of the many things I enjoy about karting is that with the rules for the Spec Honda engine class that I race in is that it takes away much of the "I spend more money than you" factor (especially versus the less restrictive ICC engine class rules) and boils it down to driver ability, chassis and engine tuning talent, and some luck sure doesn't hurt! The money does factor in where some of the drivers can afford to hire a full time mechanic, engine tuner and/or an “arrive and drive” program (anywhere from $3 - $5K for the SuperNats depending on the class and not including travel costs and other expenses). In fact, I’ve heard from a very reliable source that for the top level KZ2 class (ICC engine) a 2 engine lease from the current top level engine builder is, wait for it…, $8K for the event and you don’t even get to keep the engines. No, that’s not a typo…!!! This is compared to me where I do everything, except alignments. Doug Sorensen owner of Extreme Karting does those for me (www.extreme-karting.com).
Mechanic = me
Chassis tuner = mostly me (Vince Mandarino owner of Vemme helped a lot too!)
Engine tuner = mostly me… (SwedeTech helps a lot too!
Driver’s coach = me
Driver’s attitude adjuster = me (hee-hee)
Data acquisition engineer = me
etc… = me
That’s one thing that I love about the SuperNats, everyone from a privateer like me to a top level international driver with a mega team compete on the same level.
The SuperNats is a once a year event, the largest and most prestigious karting event in North America and arguably the world, bringing together the finest karters from around the world to race each other to see who's the best in their class from all different racing organizations and sanctioning bodies. As a karter, you hear about these drivers by word of mouth and read about them in the various karting magazines and online, but now you get to put a face to the name (not just a helmet paint job and drivers suit) and race head to head while making new friends in the process. While yes it's extremely competitive, there’s a great sense of camaraderie and love for the sport shared by all who participate.
As a karter for the last ten years, this being my fifth SuperNats as a driver and previous to that, two years as a SuperNats corner worker, this was almost a solid week of karting nirvana. With almost 500 karters from all around the world representing 30 countries, professional drivers from different car racing series, etc... While last year’s attendance was just shy of 550 drivers it included two classes, G1 and KF2, that weren’t offered this year, so this year the classes were even larger and deeper in driver talent.
Three years ago SKUSA was extremely fortunate to have three current (at the time) Formula 1 drivers race at the SuperNats including seven time Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher, Nelson Piquet, Jr. and Sebastien Buemi. This year the Formula 1 schedule coincided with the SuperNats with their first visit to the brand new race track in Austin, TX, Circuit of the Americas. Unfortunately due to this scheduling conflict no Formula 1 drivers were in attendance this year. However, next year the SuperNats will be the week following the F1 race in Texas and SKUSA is looking forward to hopefully have some of the F1 drivers with them next year!!! The majority of professional auto racers get their start in karts and the majority of Formula 1 driver’s race karts in the off season to stay sharp.
Here’s a picture of Michael Schumacher at the SuperNats three years ago:
This year, as well as the last four years, the SuperNats was held on a temporary track in the back parking lot of the Rio Hotel & Suites in Las Vegas, NV the week before Thanksgiving. This location is fantastic and affords room for the track and pits, though it’s an extremely tight fit. The track is right up against Interstate 15 so there’s a lot of “lookie-loos”, especially on “Super Sunday”. It’s just a short walk from the hotel and usually provides picture perfect weather with sunny and mild 60 to 70 deg F temps and a slight breeze. The SKUSA gang arrives the previous week (!!!) to start setting up the track, pits, timing and scoring, etc... This is a culmination of almost 12 months of work to put this event together; in fact they've already begun preparations for next year. SKUSA brought over 100 workers who worked tirelessly with little to no accolades up to 20 hrs per day to put on this great event. Some even worked through the night to maintain the track and facility.
My karting background:
Somehow not only myself, but my parents and two younger sisters, knew that someday I would end up racing something. I love fast cars, boats, motorcycles, etc… (almost anything with an engine that goes fast) and watch Speed on DirecTV when I can. In fact, when I was single, I owned both a Jet Ski boat for water skiing and a Kawasaki 1000 Ninja sport motorcycle capable of 180 mph.
I didn’t just start in shifter karts though some do with varying degrees of success. I would never recommend it though as shifters are the fastest class: so many things are happening so fast that it’s very difficult to get up to speed in a shifter without some slower single speed karting background.
SKUSA has a ladder system that incorporates classes that start with TaG Cadet (9 – 12 yrs old) and go all the way up to classes for 30+ yrs old in both single speed (TaG) and shifters.
Many years ago when I was in my early twenties I took my very first karting lesson at Adams Motorsports Park in Riverside, CA (www.adamsmotorsportspark.com ) with Dick Hansen who was the owner of Yamaha of America in Buena Park, CA. It was a ½ day lesson in a basic single speed Yamaha kart which I thought was the fastest thing on the planet!!! I had an absolute blast, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t raise the funds to actually buy my own equipment to go racing at the time. Talk about coming around full circle, two years ago I was able to race my shifter at the same track.
Fast forward ~10 years… I was in sales and the owner of the distributorship that I worked for had a couple of karts that he would take to the then open Amago Raceway in Northern San Diego County just for fun. A couple of times he invited me, or did I invite myself(?!), to come along for a day of fun at the track. He had both a single speed Yamaha and a 125 shifter. After driving the Yamaha for a while he asked if I’d like to try the shifter. Well, he didn’t have to ask twice!!! WOW, and I thought the Yamaha was fast, it felt like the Star Trek Enterprise going into warp speed!!!
Fast forward another ~5 years… I started indoor karting for ~1-1/2 years at the then open Dromo1 right across the freeway from Angel Stadium in Orange County, CA. The karts were powered by a Honda four stroke engine which put out ~9-10 hp. I learned that I was pretty fast and did really well. During this time I bought my own helmet because I didn’t like having to use a generic ill fitting helmet that who knows how many people used (even though they required balaclavas / aka: head sock). Now, my 17 yr old middle son takes great pride in going indoor karting with me at K1 (www.k1speed.com ) and sometimes beating me. I insist that the only reason he can beat me is that he’s ~50 lbs lighter than me!!!
Unknown to me during this time, my wife Kathy was squirreling away money which she gave me on my 40th birthday for me to spend any way I chose racing related. I think she was secretly hoping that it would get it out of my system, but it backfired!!! I used part of it for a ½ day Jim Russell open wheel racing class at Sonoma Raceway in Northern California (www.racesonoma.com ).
The remainder I used for an “arrive and drive” TaG (touch and go) kart race at Amago Raceway. According to the track owner I did really well in getting up to speed during practice. I was doing great and having a fantastic time, until the main… About ¾ of the way through the main I was close to being lapped by the faster shifter karts on track (they ran the shifters and TaG’s on the track at the same time). For some reason I wasn’t shown the blue (passing) flag due to the lead shifter driver coming up on me. At the end of the start/finish straight, going into the really fast right hand kink, the lead shifter driver ducked under me, we touched wheel to wheel which caused him and his complete kart to flip right over me with him landing right on his head, knocking him out cold. The red flag was thrown; I came to a screeching halt, frantically jumped out of my kart and ran to his side. The track owner and medics were doing the same. He came to a minute or so later, the medics checked him over and fortunately he received no injuries except for a few bumps and bruises. Our karts weren’t as fortunate as they both received significant damage, plus he needed to buy a new helmet due to a crack from the crash. I had to tell my wife that I needed to pay another ~$600 to repair my kart which didn’t go over so well either… Well guess what, that very same driver, Bill Cox (from San Diego), became my mentor when I moved into shifter karts with SKUSA. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to Bill not only for being so gracious after the crash at Amago, but also taking me under his wing and teaching me everything he knows about shifter karts. I then proceeded to beat him for the class championship that year!!!
Rewind a little bit… Even after the crash, I was absolutely hooked on karting and began to look for a way to get into it. I began visiting the local kart shops and race tracks, pestering anyone who would listen with my ignorant questions. In fact, Tom Kutscher, then owner of Extreme Karting in Anaheim, CA became my kart shop of choice. Talk about a small world… I found out that at the time Tom and Patti lived ~1 mile from my house which was a few houses down the street from where my kids, and theirs, went to Elementary School. Tom eventually sold the kart shop to Doug Sorensen and then bought SKUSA (more on this later). That’s how I got to know both Tom and Patti, then I became their Data Administrator.
After much searching, I ended up buying a complete kart setup with trailer, chassis, single speed HPV engine (~17 hp) and spare parts from Tom Stephens, then owner of www.kartfinder.com . He was getting out of karting and gave me a great deal for the complete package. Tom is the one who built my current trailer up from a bare Harbor Freight trailer. I joined Tri-C Karters (www.tri-ckarters.com ) and raced HPV for two years at Moran Raceway. Man I miss that track…!!!
Here’s a picture of me picking up that kart:
I then moved up to TaG and raced a ~27 hp Leopard for two years with SKUSA’s local regional club ProKart Challenge in SoCal (http://www.superkartsusa.com/regional/pkc-south.html ). After blowing up two Leopard TaG engines, I was ready to quit karting due to the cost and continual rib injuries. My ribs got so bad that every time I had to sneeze I thought I was going to die!!! I had to sit out from racing twice for a couple of months each to let my ribs heal. Tom Kutscher pulled me aside and convinced me to switch to Spec Honda. I also switched to a RibTect rib vest saving me from more rib injuries (www.ribtect.com ).
It may not look like it, but karting is a very physically demanding sport. The bumps, G forces, physical and mental strain combine to make fitness an important part of your overall success. Think about the G forces alone, with up to ~3 G’s trying to rip your head off. An average human head weighs 10 – 12 lbs, multiply that by three and you get the idea that your neck really gets a workout.
Arm pump can also be an issue for new karters. Most new drivers tend to put a “death grip” on the steering wheel trying to hang on during cornering and just from the overall excitement and adrenaline rush. They come off the track with their forearms in cramps from the effort. It takes time to be able to relax, allow the seat to hold you in place and relax your arms and hands to be able to gently steer and shift without strain.
S4 is a Spec Honda shifter kart class for 30+ yr old drivers and 405 lbs minimum overall weight (kart & driver). The minimum weight must be met when you come off the track so you have to compensate for fuel usage. We add lead ballast to the kart if we are underweight. This can be cut extremely close, especially in qualifying as weight has a large effect on lap times. I typically shoot for 406-407 lbs for qualifying and under 410 for the races. The average S4 driver age this year was 42 with the youngest being the minimum 30 yrs old and the oldest 59. I’m 50 so I’m, uh,… on the more “experienced” side of the age range.
S4 uses a Honda CR125 water cooled two stroke engine off of a motocross motorcycle that has very tight rules regarding what can be done to the engine. There are enough things than can be changed to keep the tinkerers happy, make engine tuning one more factor in success and to help keep cheating to an absolute minimum. There will always be those that believe that “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” but I don’t buy into that at all. I take great pride in following all of the technical and safety rules to the letter which gives me even more satisfaction when I do well. There isn’t an on-board starter so we have to rely on a push start by having someone give us a push and dropping it into 1st gear. However, when the kart is on the stand I can start it by myself by putting it into 2nd or 3rd gear (depending on the gearing), wrapping a strap around the right rear tire, pulling the strap really hard with my left hand while my right hand is on the throttle cable. About the only things that you can change on the engine are external: reeds (open = any type you wish), cylinders and carburetors (two each to choose from), fuel pump system, adjust the timing a little bit (SKUSA has a timing plate), exhaust pipes ( 5 to choose from) and silencers (open). Other than that, it's "no touchy!!!” This helps to keep costs down by increasing reliability as well as eliminating any internal engine modifications helping to keep it a "drivers" class, not how deep your pockets are. You can tune the engine by: 1) Using an air gage to read the corrected altitude, temperature and humidity. 2) By “reading” the spark plug and piston. 3) Exhaust gas temperature (EGT). 4) How the engine runs both on the stand and track. There are a number of things in the carburetor that you can change: main and pilot jets, needle and needle clip setting for varying atmospheric and track conditions. Like the chassis, these combine to make engine tuning a “fine art”!!!
The engine, just under my right elbow, puts out ~35-37 hp, revs to ~12,600+ rpm with ~3,000 usable rpm range to keep it "on the pipe", has a six speed sequential manual gearbox and you can change the overall gearing ratio by changing the engine output shaft sprocket and/or rear axle sprocket. The engine doesn’t have a thermostat so we use duct tape on the radiator to help regulate the engine temperature as the engine has an optimum operating temperature range. It’s just one more thing to have to watch on the MyChron gage, as you don’t want the engine to be too cold or hot so you have to watch the temperature reading and remove tape as necessary. I also program the MyChron to start flashing if the water temp gets too high. I install multiple tape strips horizontally on the radiator (to my left) with the outside ends folded over onto itself making a “tail” which makes it easier to grab with a quick glance. When the temperature is pretty cool like at the SuperNats, I tend to start out with too much tape and remove it as needed. Being that it’s a shifter and that we have to use both hands, one for steering and one for shifting, usually there is no time other than the start/finish straight to remove tape as needed. This is always fun at 80+ mph!!! The chassis has four wheel disc brakes: one on each front wheel and one on the rear axle (there is no differential). The only time we use the clutch is for getting the kart moving from a standing start or to quickly grab in case of a spin to keep the engine from stalling. The clutch lever is just to the left of the steering wheel. It’s also sometimes used in very slow 1st gear corners especially at the beginning of a race where the karts are very close together and slower than the usual race pace. We shift with a lever just to the right of the steering wheel, pull to upshift and push to downshift. We don't use the clutch for shifting: just a little lift off the throttle will do the trick. The kart is capable of 0 – 60 mph in ~3 seconds, 100+ mph top speed which I've done ~110 mph personally (I've been told ~115 mph in a draft on a long enough straight), can pull ~3 G's in the corners and stop on a dime and give you nine cents change!!! Many compare them to a Formula 1 car just on a smaller scale. All of this happens with your butt 1" off the ground so you have an extremely high sensation of speed. With the high G loads, most drivers wear rib vests to help prevent a fairly common karting injury: broken ribs and/or rib cartilage injury. Rib injuries can be sustained without even being in a crash, just during normal racing conditions (side G loads and bumps). I wear a carbon fiber reinforced rib vest.
Oh, by the way, there are no seat belts. In fact, you don't want them because in a worst case scenario of a kart flip you want to be ejected from the kart, not have it land on top of you.
Kart chassis are completely different than cars in that they have no active suspension such as springs or shocks and are deceptively simple. Most chassis are now made in Europe, are CIK approved and homologated for usually a 3 year span at a time (http://www.cikfia.com/home.html ). The only suspension to speak of is the chassis itself, tires and the driver's butt (hee-hee). The chassis is made up of tubular chromoly steel that is designed to flex and twist. While they may look extremely simple, there are many adjustments that can be made to suit different track conditions and driver preferences: front and rear track width and ride height, front end camber/castor/toe, different axle stiffness's, different front and rear wheel hub lengths, aluminum vs magnesium wheels, install/remove multiple seat struts, different seats (materials and stiffness / fiberglass vs carbon fiber), install or remove front/rear torsion bars, change seat position, tire pressures, etc... This allows thousands of different combinations to suit the track and weather conditions, driving style, etc... OK, so you get the idea that it's not as simple as it looks!!!
Also, weight is very critical, especially for the, um, “gravity challenged” amongst us. I went to great lengths to reduce as much weight as possible from the chassis by installing components made out of aluminum, magnesium and even titanium. I also go to the extent of using the shortest fasteners possible to save those pesky last few ounces!
For the SuperNats we are issued two new sets of MG race tires that we can manage any way we wish for qualifying, the three heat races, LCQ if necessary and the main. The tires are stamped and numbered for each individual driver. You can use as many new or used tires as you wish during the practice sessions but you are limited to the spec tire for your class. Two years ago SKUSA forged an even tighter relationship with MG by having a bespoke compound made just for SKUSA.
SKUSA has a fuel “farm" which is just before you enter the grid area to go onto the track. There are two reasons for this. First, for fire marshal safety regulations that limit any extra fuel in the pit area other than what's in the kart fuel tank and for any generators. Second, it helps control the fuel/oil to minimize any chances of "hanky panky" with fuel additives (no one would ever cheat in racing… would they?!). You must bring your fuel voucher card to the fuel farm to retrieve your fuel jug, fill your kart then return your fuel jug to get your voucher back. SKUSA uses a spec fuel (VP MS98) and oil (Motul Kart Grand Prix 2T).
When you come off the track you first must go over the scales to see if you meet the minimum weight for your class. At registration you are given tags for both your chassis and engine which must be installed for qualifying and the remainder of the event limiting you to them alone unless you get approval to change/repair due to crash or engine damage. SKUSA uses an “honor system” in that when you show up to the grid for qualifying you must turn in the SKUSA mandated pre-tech sheet filled out and signed by the driver. The driver is ultimately responsible to meet all of these requirements and is penalized or DQ’d if not. Some karting organizations do an actual hands-on pre-tech where you must take your complete kart/engine and all of your safety gear to tech to have them checked. This is logistically impossible at the SuperNats due to the sheer number of drivers. After qualifying, heats and main the top five finishers (plus one or two in case of DQ’s) go through tech. Tech can also be totally random in regarding whom and what they check, doing their best in keeping everyone honest. After the main, tech can be very extensive including handing your engine back in pieces!!!
Safety, gages and transponder:
The only safety requirements in regards to the driver are a CIK approved driver’s suit, shoes, gloves and an up to date SNELL rated helmet. The helmet of course must be custom painted to get you those last few tenths of a second (hee-hee). Seriously though, very few drivers have a white (“cue ball”) helmet as it’s a way to show their individuality and look cool too!!!
Here’s a picture of my helmet (it’s a Bell GP-2 with optional forehead vent, rear wing and tinted visor):
It’s painted by:
There are a number of safety requirements for the kart that are too numerous to list here but suffice it to say, they are there for a reason.
I use a MyChron 4 gage on my steering wheel which shows me lap time, lap count, rpm, water temperature and a shift light (you can really only see the shift light at night so I shift by ear). Some of the newer gages can be had with GPS!!! No, not to show you how to get to the nearest McDonald’s… but it provides an overlay of the track map onto your throttle, gear, wheel speed and other sensors which can be downloaded to a computer. There is also an infrared beacon which must be on the kart to trip the matching beacon trackside at the start/finish line, this provides your gage with lap time, but it’s not tied in with timing & scoring. That’s where your transponder comes in.
My AMB MyLaps TranX 160 transponder has been developed for competition karting and is used internationally. The transponder must be mounted in a particular place on the kart and when it crosses start/finish, an embedded wire in the asphalt picks up the signal, matches it to your kart and logs your lap time, position, etc… Timing and scoring logs your lap time to the thousandth of a second! I also login online to view my results.
Since SKUSA is the sanctioning body of the SuperNats, all participants must follow the complete SKUSA rulebook or risk penalties and/or DQ. Ignorance doesn’t count…!
While kart races are usually held on a purpose built kart track with dirt surrounding the asphalt giving some “oops” room, the SuperNats is held on a temporary track in the middle of a parking lot using a lot of plastic barriers to delineate the track boundaries. The plastic barriers are tough because if you aren’t inch perfect and touch one, most likely you will receive some sort of damage in return. The temporary track eliminates the possibility of anyone renting the track prior to the event for practice and having an unfair advantage. It also stresses tuning and driving capabilities starting out on a slippery track and adjusting to the track changes as rubber is laid down and the grip level increases (sometimes very dramatically) as well as changing track conditions going from day to night. The slippery track really stresses throttle control and putting the kart on the knife edge of traction as much as possible. In the videos you'll notice what might look like light throttle application but I'm right on the edge of wheelspin.
In my videos you’ll notice that this year SKUSA incorporated curbs defining the apex of many of the corners. This is the single best improvement in safety in the history of the event!!! The curbs replace plastic barriers which can cause damage to the kart as well as provide HUGE sight line improvement for the driver to be able to see around the corner and make adjustments if there’s an incident.
SKUSA (www.superkartsusa.com ), the sanctioning body of the SuperNats and the nationally growing ProKart Challenge (PKC) regional race series in which I've raced the last number of years, runs the SuperNats schedule with morning and afternoon groups (I was in the morning group). With this schedule it was great being able to take my time in the afternoon after the morning session to do any work needed on the kart or just walk around the pits talking with fellow drivers and generally just taking in the experience.
About 8 weeks prior to the SuperNats I bought a new Vemme chassis which is made to Vince Madarino’s specifications by Parolin which is an Italian kart manufacturer. Vince is the owner and also markets the chassis worldwide and has chosen my kart shop, Extreme Karting, as the USA importer. The brand name Vemme comes from Vince’s first and last name initials (VM) which in Italian is Vemme (cool!). After anxiously awaiting the arrival of my new kart I come to find out that it’s stuck in customs at the Canadian/USA border due to bugs hitchhiking on the pallet the chassis is on…. OH NO!!!! I’m quickly running out of time to assemble and test a brand new chassis. I ended having less than one week to assemble the kart and take it out for one practice day at the local kart track, CalSpeed (http://www.calspeedkarting.com/ ), located in the parking lot of California Speedway in Fontana, CA the Sunday before the SuperNats (!!!). I’m really stressed about this because I had planned on having much more time to not only assemble it, but also do at least a couple of days testing. I usually like to do one day just to do a “shake down” test day making sure everything is assembled right, make any adjustments, changes, etc… Then, I would take it out for a couple of full on test days to try different things to see how the kart reacts. While the chassis look very similar sometimes a change or adjustment will have an opposite effect from kart brand to kart brand. Luckily, the kart nor the driver had any issues and I was doing competitive lap times relative to my S1 teammate Pater Abba who was also there testing his brand new Vemme chassis.
Karts look really simple but trust me: they can take a lot of time to prepare, especially for me as I’m extremely anal when it comes to details and safety!!! I think I should buy stock in “zip ties” as I go through them constantly… They say that your kart looks its best the day you bought it, the day you sold it, and right before the SuperNats!!!.
About 1-1/2 yrs ago I had been seriously hampered by a herniated disc in my lower back which was pinching my sciatic nerve (L5 / S1) causing me tremendous pain in my left hip, leg and back requiring me to use a cane just to get around. It got so bad that I couldn’t even dress myself. After months of trying physical therapy and pain control I finally had Microdiscectomy surgery. The surgery was a great success and gave me immediate relief!!! In fact, immediately after the surgery in the recovery room after I woke up, the nurses had me stand and walk a little bit (amazing!!!).
Also, earlier this year I had left shoulder surgery for a torn rotator cuff which was also very successful.
So, after being surgically repaired, I have no physical excuses!!!
Oh, did I mention that I’m a budget racer on a shoe string budget…? Here are some of the things that I do to help keep my SuperNats costs to an absolute minimum:
• My hotel room has a small refrigerator so I bring my own breakfast and lunch food.
• I bring my own coffee maker and coffee so I don’t have to visit the Starbucks on the way to the track and pay $3(!) for a cup of coffee.
• I bring a flat of Gatorade to drink in the pits. I pull my rolling ice chest to and from my room each day and fill it with ice from the ice machine in the vending area near my room (ice is $7 a bag!)
• I found free wi-fi internet access at the Starbucks downstairs on the way to the track keeping me from having to pay $15 per day access fee in my room. I’m sorry, but that’s crazy…
• Subway has great Veggie Delight subs. Hey, you can’t beat the $5 foot longs!!!
Tuesday (arrival and check in):
The big teams with their huge tractor trailer rigs and tents began moving in the Sunday prior to the race with smaller teams the next day or so. I'm used to arriving at a race and seeing about 75-100 drivers pitted in everything from the bed of small pickup trucks to large enclosed trailers behind 30'+ diesel pusher motor homes with multiple chassis and engines. When I show up at the SuperNats I'm amazed looking at the paddock with mega dollar big rigs, huge hospitality tents, multiple sponsor and vendor tents, it's incredible!!! Even though with this being my fifth time as a driver and seventh overall at the SuperNats, I was still awestruck when I arrived. After a four hour drive from SoCal I arrived about 9am Tuesday, made my way through the pits and dropped off my trailer and other stuff at the Vemme tent. Our tent comprised a team of six drivers: Peter Abba/S1, Michael Vincec/KZ2 (the fastest class of all), Christian Schureman/S2, Mathew Moniz/TaG J, Chris Perreault/S4 and myself/S4). Doug’s Extreme Karting shop/team trailer is parked right next to the tent for easy access to any spare parts and tools. My little trailer is extremely easy to get around and I was able to store it just in front of Doug’s trailer and just outside the tent at my pit area for easy access. Being in this tent was a huge benefit as I received tuning advice from Vince and his son Lorenzo on their own chassis!!!
My humble pit spot (Vince even made signs for each driver!):
One of the nicer team hospitality areas:
One of the larger transporters. There are even larger ones just like you would see at NASCAR races:
Here’s a picture from a couple of years ago showing me starting the main in 7th (no, it’s not PhotoShopped… )
Here’s a video from that main event:
It’s much more competitive now so the days of starting 7th, getting spun out in the first corner of the first lap and making my way back to 14th are long gone…
After helping Vince set up the tent, I set up my pit area and made my way to the registration desk where Tom and Patti Kutscher, the owners of SKUSA, are greeting everyone. Over the last six years or so Tom and Patti have allowed me to help behind the scenes by having me be SKUSA's Data Administrator which is a fancy title for someone who types a lot. In my spare time I process all of the SKUSA memberships, SuperNats/Pro Tour/ProKart Challenge race entries, championship point’s spreadsheets, etc... I am extremely fortunate and grateful for this because if I couldn’t help, I couldn’t afford to race. I check in for the race, get my race tires and fuel from the tire and fuel farms respectively.
I also check in with SwedeTech who is my engine builder (www.swedetechracingengines.com). Reine Persson, SwedeTech owner, brought their own trailer from Northern California and three(!) people to support all of their customers. Throughout the course of the event they are continually offering tuning advice, parts availability and hands on assistance. GREAT SERVICE!!!
Wednesday (practice / Group P1):
I set small incremental goals for each session on track (practice, qualifying, heat race, warm up session, etc…). First and foremost was to NOT CRASH!!! With only 45 minutes between each practice session there’s very little time for repairs and you don’t want to miss any track time as laps are critical.
The last four years there were 40, 40, 68 and 60 S4 drivers respectively and this year there were 68 again (including ten drivers from: Brazil, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, Jamaica and Mexico). The S4 field continues to get deeper and deeper every year and this year it was the deepest in the history of the SuperNats with a fantastically high level of driver talent. Due to the large number of drivers there were two S4 groups (P1 and P2), 34 each for each group and four subgroups after qualifying (A, B, C and D / 17 each). 40 is normally the max allowed on the track at one time. For Wednesday SKUSA randomly split the 68 drivers into two groups and I happened to end up in P1 (there is no difference between P1 and P2 at this time). Each group had four practice sessions on both Wednesday and Thursday.
SKUSA posted the SuperNats track map online shortly before the race so I was able to visualize the racing line and make a highly engineered and calculated gearing choice (aka: “SWAG” hee-hee) taking into consideration the last turn onto the longest straight, longest straight length and other factors.
With the limited amount of space for the track SKUSA faces a challenge each year in coming up with a new track configuration and they again did a fantastic job! With the addition of the curbs and the new track layout, this year was going to be awesome!!! The SuperNats puts a premium on getting up to speed quickly and making changes to keep up with the changing track and environmental conditions.
Here’s the track layout:
The last two years the S4 class has been in the afternoon session but SKUSA switched it up this year and we were in the morning session. In fact, my S4 P1 group is the very first group to take to the track on Wednesday morning. Bummer, no more sleeping in…!
Even though SKUSA hired a street sweeper to clean the track as best as possible, the track was still dusty, very cold and EXTREMELY slippery!!! I was shocked that there weren’t any accidents in our session.
My first session on track was just to get used to the track layout and see if my gearing was close. My strategy was to just lay back, find open track and get up to speed without "racing" anyone. In the first session my initial impressions were that the track was very slippery and my gearing was off a little, but I would learn more as the sessions went by. After making gearing and other changes I was faster in the second session as I got to know the nuances of the track, braking and shifting points, etc... The third session I was quicker yet but many of the faster drivers hadn’t put on their transponders yet to keep their pace to themselves (transponders are mandatory starting with Wednesday’s 4th session).
Wed – Practice #4
As strange as it may sound to non-karters, you have to adjust the grip level of the chassis for new tires as you can sometimes end up having too much grip (aka: “overstuck”) which actually slows you down. So far during the day I’ve made some gearing and chassis adjustments and felt that I was going in the right direction. All drivers were required to have transponders on and be totally tech compliant for the fourth session as it would dictate the new P1 (faster) and P2 (slower) groups for the rest of the event, including qualifying. I used this session as pseudo qualifying as most other drivers did. I mounted a new set of practice tires, made a few adjustments, gained ~.7 second and just like last year, I was 20th quick in my group. However, unlike last year where this lap time put me in the P2 group, this year I was literally the last driver in the faster P1 group. WHEW!!!
Here’s a picture of my MyChron showing my three fastest laps for Wednesday’s 4th practice session. I wasn’t the fastest driver but I sure was consistent with three consecutive laps within .02 sec and two consecutive laps being the exact same lap time!!! Consistency is good…but I’m ~1 sec off the fastest drivers and I’ve got a lot of work to do…
Here’s a fantastic onboard video showing what it’s like to drive a shifter kart (really well!!!)
p.s. – No, it’s not me: it’s Patrick Cushenberry / S2 / #27u who’s one of the faster S2 drivers.
Here’s one of me that’s similar for comparison:
Thursday (practice / Group P1):
I took most of Wednesday afternoon and made wholesale changes to the kart because it was obvious by that I had a lot of time to gain. I’m typically ~½ sec off the fastest drivers but I was struggling to get within 1 sec of them on this ~46-47 sec lap track. Thursday's practice sessions were pretty crazy as I was making a lot more changes but so far I hadn't touched a barrier or another kart.
Friday (Group P1 /redemption begins…):
After Thursday practice I did a complete once over on the kart as well as a complete top end of the engine. Piston, piston ring, wrist pin, wrist pin bearing and C-clips were changed to give me the most power possible. I love the simplicity of two stroke engines!!! I did a couple of heat cycles of the engine on the kart stand and used the warm-up session to finish breaking in the engine.
Unlike ProKart Challenge where after you qualify you can move up in each of the two heats: you start H2 where you finished in H1 and you start the main where you finished in H2. At the SuperNats you start each of the three heats where you qualify regardless of your heat results. This makes qualifying absolutely crucial where a tenth or two can mean more than 10 positions!!!
Just for reference: on average a human eye takes between 2-3 tenths of a second to complete a single blink. So imagine standing at the start/finish line and blink, more than 10 karts would’ve gone by. That’s why timing and scoring goes to the thousandths of a second!!!
Doug and I discussed qualifying strategy: going out early vs late. The practice sessions have been pretty short at only 7 min each but qualifying was 12 min, seemingly an eternity. With 34 karts on the track at once, finding an open piece of track can be very difficult. Unlike last year where I decided to go out late and it cost me HUGE…this year I go out early.
After sitting on the grid for a few minutes warming up our engines, our group was released onto the track for qualifying. I went out with the first group of karts, as some stayed behind, and followed one of the faster drivers and used him as a “rabbit”. Typically you only get a handful of “golden laps” with these tires so timing is critical. I end up qualifying 31st out of 34 in my P1 group which puts me 23rd out of 34 on the grid in the ‘C’ group for each heat race. I did however finally break into the 46 second bracket for the first time!!!
Friday Heat 1 (12 laps / Group B vs C):
First, let me explain that the accumulation of points from your finishing position in the three heats dictates the grid for the 42 kart main (I’m in Group C for the three heats). 0pts-1st, 2pts-2nd, 3pts-3rd, 4pts-4th, etc… 28 drivers in our class of 68 won’t make the main on “Super Sunday”. The biggest factor in making the main is to not have any DNF’s as the high amount of points really hurt your chances.
Shifter karts use a standing start just like Formula 1, with two rows of karts staggered slightly to give more room once the lights go out. Once the grid is set, the lights come on and within 1-5 seconds the lights go out signaling the start of the race.
The driver’s mechanic(s) can stand along the fence while their driver is on track to give them hand signals to show the gap to the kart(s) behind. This is very helpful as it keeps you from having to look behind you and helps you decide on your strategy of either being able to attack the driver in front of you or having to defend from the driver(s) behind (or both!!!). Sometimes you can hear the engine of the kart behind you and/or take a peek behind you as you go around a tight turn. During a race I normally don't look behind me because I don't want to let the driver behind me think that I'm rattled by them being there. During practice I tend to look around more frequently trying to find clear track space.
Since you are in the same group for all of the heats you get familiar with the drivers that are in front of and behind you. This doesn’t hold true though for the row next to you as that changes for each of the three heats as you have to cycle through the other three race groups. We had 1-1/2 laps as a warm-up, I did a couple of practice starts and pulled into my spot on the painted starting grid. After a few moments the grid was set, the lights came on, revs came up and "green, green, green!!!" off we went in a cloud of two stroke engine smoke.
The starts are challenging to get just right with the combination of engine revs and clutch slip. You stand on the brake, rev the engine like crazy and load the engine with the clutch. The kart starts to shudder with the clutch trying to move the kart forward against the brake making it feel as if you’re on a thoroughbred horse in the starting gate. This creates a preload effect on the drivetrain giving you a good launch once you let off the brake and feed in the clutch while keeping the throttle pinned.
The first lap of every SuperNats race is really crazy as everyone is looking to gain as many spots as possible and make it through unscathed. Then, when things “calm down” a little you can really go racing.
The first couple of laps of any race are especially tricky: the tires aren't fully up to temperature and pressure and are a little bit slippery, there is an “accordion effect” as the karts are very close together, especially coming into braking zones, drivers are jockeying for position swerving left and right trying to find a gap... Also, starting near the back, the drivers are racing with a certain amount of desperation trying to make up positions and points to try and make the main event.
I made it through the first lap of craziness and finished 22nd. Usually the 1st and 3rd heats are the craziest as the drivers are looking to make up the most spots. OK, so far so good…
Here’s the heat 1 video:
Saturday Heat 2 (12 laps / Group A vs C):
I got a good start and immediately jumped to the outside for turn one. I definitely didn’t want to be on the inside as I figured there would be a lot of carnage. After turn 1 I moved to the outside for turn two thinking there would be some bumping and grinding on the inside. I then moved to the inside for the turn 4 hairpin but there was some carnage and I got stuck behind and bumped into a stalled kart. ARGH!!! (this was however the only contact all week!) My plan worked great, I made it through the first lap and again, like the first heat, I finished 22nd.
Unfortunately the video didn’t come out…
Here’s a picture of the result of my only contact during the event:
I was EXTREMELY fortunate as there were a number a chassis, steering shafts, tie rods, spindles, etc… written off at the event.
Saturday Heat 3 (12 laps / Group C vs D):
I get another good start but am stuck on the inside for turn 1 and barely miss the barriers going into turn 1. Please don’t let there be carnage!!! I made it through turns 1 and 2 cleanly and approached turn 4 on my “tip toes”, a really tight 1st or 2nd gear 180 deg right hander. I made it through…WHEW!!! Now we can go racing.
I spent much of the heat behind two drivers who were really duking it out so I laid back just a bit, ready to take advantage of any mistakes they made. I finished 21st and set my fastest lap of the event so far and had no contact garnering what I hoped to be enough points for me to transfer directly into the main.
Here’s the heat 3 video:
Saturday LCQ (12 laps)
Most of the S4 drivers anxiously waited at the timing & scoring tent for the total points to be posted to find out if they automatically made the main or had to go to the LCQ. It took an extremely long time for the results to be finally posted due to delays in getting the 3rd heat drivers through post tech, DQ’s, penalties, and sort out the results… While the wait became longer and longer, the drivers became more and more skittish and nervous. Additionally, we were running out of time to get ready for our LCQ. FINALLY the results are posted and I’m 43rd in total points meaning I will start the LCQ 9th, 5th row on the right side. Since I pretty much already knew that I would be in the LCQ I was mainly waiting to see where I would be gridded to decide if I wanted to put on my 2nd set of race tires. If I was gridded where I thought I didn’t have a chance to finish in the top 6 then I would just use my 1st set of already used race tires and just have fun. Being that I’m gridded 9th I immediately decide to mount my unused 2nd set of race tires and quickly RUN to my tent which is ~100 yards away and in the opposite direction of the grid. While huffing & puffing Elbert and I mount the new tires on the kart (which are already mounted on a set of wheels). Thinking back, I should’ve already had my kart with my tool box and new set of tires already at the Timing & Scoring tent to save the hassle… .
Meanwhile, the PA announcer is announcing that myself and another driver are missing on the grid…!!! After the tires are mounted I grab all of my drivers gear and RUN to the grid. Elbert follows behind pushing my kart on the kart stand towards grid. I arrive at the grid and stand in my grid spot reserving it and waiting for Elbert and the kart. Elbert has to stop at the fuel farm to fill the fuel tank for the LCQ as it is 12 laps (the same as the heats) and there’s not enough fuel left from the 3rd heat. Luckily Elbert makes it in time, we put the kart on the ground and he gives me a push start. WHEW!!! There’s just a moment before we’re let out onto the track for our 1-1/2 warm up lap. I’m still breathing hard from the running I’ve done to change tires and make the grid so I purposefully slow my breathing and relax during the warm up laps…
OK, I’ve “qualified” to race in the LCQ. My teammate Chris Perreault just missed making the main and is starting the LCQ on pole (he won the LCQ). This is the last chance to make it into the main. The top 34 out of 40 spots in the main had already been determined by point’s accumulation through the 3 heats. That meant that there were 34 drivers that were going to fight it out for the remaining 6 spots!!! Only 31 drivers actually make it to the grid.
I was gridded 9th, had mounted my 2nd and last set of race tires on the kart to try and help me as much as possible.
Oh boy, you thought the heats were crazy… wait until you try racing in an LCQ putting everything on the line to make the cut!!!
I got a good clean start and made it through the first half lap with no issues. By the end of the 1st lap I was in 7th right behind 2012 3rd place National Champ Lance Lane and Sergio Aguilera (#5). On lap 2 I made it by both of them as they got together briefly at the turn 4 hairpin so now I’m in 5th!!! I quickly glance behind me and Lance is all over me!!! From the 2nd to 11th lap Lance and I have a great battle and he showed his karts nose to me a couple of times but I’m able to hold him off. Meanwhile, 2012 2nd place National Champ Nick Firestone has been knifing his way through the field from what I believe to be his 19th starting spot and on lap 9 he’s pretty close behind Lance. OH MY!!! I’ve got 2 of the 3 2012 National Champs behind me and I’m in 5th, the next to last transfer spot. Last year’s LCQ memories come flooding back (see notes below) and I make myself a promise that it won’t happen this year…!!! Meanwhile, during all of this I’ve been catching up to Steve Perdue (#75). So… taking the white flag I’m a few kart lengths behind Steve crossing the line but I make an aggressive move to the inside to pass him at turn 1, and… I MAKE IT through to take over the 4th spot!!! WHEW!!! Lance was right on my butt and went through with me so now Steve is in 6th and on the “bubble” with Nick all over him. I made myself really “wide” and protected the inside of all of the corners to prevent Lance from making a move but both he and I didn’t need to worry too much as we were in 4th and 5th respectively and Steve had his hands full with Nick. Lance and I go on and finish the last lap in tandem while Steve was able to barely hold off Nick by .1 sec at the line ½ sec behind us.
I was so excited when I took the checkered flag that you would’ve though I just won the main event!!! When I came off the track, there were a number of people in the stands that I knew, and I excitedly waived and pointed, practically jumping out of my seat and generally made a spectacle of myself. WOW, that was sure exciting but I don’t know if I would want to do it again…!
I ran my fastest lap of the event, nothing like having incentive right…!!! I missed setting the fastest lap by .003 sec to Nick. In fact, I finally made it back to my normal ~1/2 sec off of the fastest drivers!!!
Here’s the LCQ final results:
Unfortunately with all of the excitement trying to just make the grid I forgot to turn on the GoPro so there is no video… .
Last year was especially heartbreaking because in the LCQ I was in the 6th and final transfer spot to the main but was taken out in the last corner of the last lap. Please see the following link for the video.
Of the nine total classes at the event, four had LCQ’s to make the main event: TaG Cadet (almost 70 drivers), TaG Junior (almost 85 drivers), TaG Senior (90 drivers) and S4 (almost 70 drivers).
On “Super Sunday” there was a short warm up for each class in the morning then the opening ceremonies began. This was really exciting as all of the ~500 drivers show up at the grid and a picture is taken. The National Anthem is sung and Rob Howden of EKarting News excitedly announced that it’s “Super Sunday” and the racing began.
I finished the main 35th out of 42.
Here’s the video from the S4 Main:
In the end, I met all of my small incremental goals: not crashing, finishing every practice session, finishing every lap of each race, finishing ahead of where I started, and most of all, HAVING FUN!!!
I would like to extend a huge thank you to all those who helped me. While the actual racing on track is an individual sport, there are many people along the way that help to get you there (in no particular order):
My wonderful wife Kathy – She understands my “need for speed”.
SKUSA / Tom and Patti Kutscher – Allowing me to help behind the scenes and race!!!
Extreme Karting / Doug Sorensen – Great kart shop and fantastic service!!!
Vemme Kart – Vince & Lorenzo Mandarino
SwedeTech Racing Engines (Reine, Jason and Vince) – The best quality, service and support you could ask for!!!
SKUSA Data Administrator
#21x / S4 / ProKart Challenge SoCal
SKUSA office) 951-491-0808
SKUSA fax) 951-491-0809
A clean kart is a happy kart, a happy kart is a fast kart!!!
Good luck is where preparation and opportunity meet!!!
#21x / S4 / ProKart Challenge (PKC)
SKUSA Data Administrator
Good luck is where preparation and opportunity meet!!!
The opinions I express are mine alone and do not reflect those of any organization of which I am a member.